Building a super team within a hard salary cap is no easy feat, particularly when that ceiling sits at just $1,420,500, as it does for each of the WNBA’s 12 teams for the upcoming season. Nonetheless, the reigning WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty had seemingly successfully constructed them through significant free agent signings this offseason, exciting fans with the prospect of a pair of powerhouse teams that could send the W into a new era of competition.
But just one day after two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker spoke to the press for the first time as a member of the Aces on Tuesday, Las Vegas stands accused of skirting salary-cap rules to defend its title in 2023, prompting an investigation by the league. The inquiry again opens the door for bigger discussions about player salaries and displays the growing tensions between a subset of owners willing to spend whatever it takes to win and a league trying to maintain competitive balance.
According to a report by The Next, the league is investigating accusations that Las Vegas arranged additional payments for players—for both current players negotiating extensions and free agents the team was recruiting—from outside companies to supplement the salaries the Aces offered within the confines of this season’s salary cap. The sponsorship offers reportedly would require minimal work on the part of the players.
In a statement, a WNBA spokesperson confirmed the league is investigating the Aces “in connection with allegations raised in a recent social media post by Dearica Hamby.” A source with knowledge of the inquiry said the investigation also includes allegations of salary-cap circumvention.
Hamby, who was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks last month, accused Las Vegas of unethical treatment and pregnancy discrimination in a statement shared on Instagram. “Being traded is part of the business,” she wrote, describing her experience as traumatizing. “Being lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against is not.”
The WNBA players association called for an investigation into the allegations.
In a statement, the Aces confirmed they had been made aware of the formal investigation launched “by the WNBA regarding [Hamby].”
“As an organization whose mission is to support and celebrate the tremendously talented women in our league, we take seriously our responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest professional standards,” the statement said. “We have been in contact with league investigators to assist with all information requested, and will continue to do so throughout the investigation.”
Along with Parker, who signed with the Aces at a steep discount, the franchise added forward Alysha Clark while simultaneously retaining Sydney Colson and Kiah Stokes from last year’s championship team. The foursome will play alongside the league’s reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray (WNBA Finals MVP) and a pair of All-Stars in Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum.
The Liberty assembled the Aces’ presumed East Coast rival by adding WNBA superstar Breanna Stewart and four-time All-Star Courtney Vandersloot in free agency and acquiring former WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones from the Connecticut Sun.
These super teams were welcomed by many WNBA fans. But the accusations against the Aces raise important questions beyond how these teams can be built within such a limited compensation structure—namely, what are the costs of rules violations to teams and their owners, and what does the W do with owners playing by their own rules?
Hard salary caps are not unusual; leagues such as the NFL and NHL impose them. Others, including the NBA and NWSL, impose soft caps to limit team spending on players to promote parity while also allowing some wiggle room. In the NBA, teams that exceed the cap are subject to certain restrictions, while in the NWSL, teams can purchase additional allocation money to spend. That explains how the Washington Spirit could afford Trinity Rodman’s $1.1 million deal, which carried an average annual value of $281,000—significantly more than 2022’s $75,000 maximum salary.
Circumventing the WNBA’s salary cap is prohibited by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. It explicitly bans a team or team affiliate from entering an “agreement or understanding with any sponsor or business partner or third party under which [the company] pays or agrees to pay compensation for basketball services (even if such compensation is ostensibly designated as being for non-basketball services)” to a player under contract.
The CBA, which runs through 2027, spells out the two key identifiers of such a deal: The sponsorship offer exceeds fair market value, while the player’s basketball contract sits “substantially below” it.
With 12 roster spots per team, the hard cap limits the number of max ($202,154) and supermax ($234,936) contracts a franchise can offer star players. Building a super team, therefore, requires a bit of creativity. Finding veteran players willing to take salary cuts is one option, which was presumably how the Aces signed Parker to a one-year, $100,000 deal—far less than the $192,500 she made each season of her two-year stint in Chicago—and Clark to a two-year, $220,000 deal after making $183,000 annually in Washington. If the allegations against Las Vegas are found to be true, it means there was also some coloring outside the lines to diminish the financial sting of such sacrifices.
The allegations against Las Vegas bring fresh attention to player salaries within the league. They also open the door for new dialogue about players having to choose between winning and earning in a way that doesn’t exist as dramatically in leagues like the NFL or NBA, where the league minimum salaries are enough to provide a comfortable living.
The allegations also spotlight a growing tension between WNBA owners, some of whom are pushing harder for faster progress than others, as well as the league itself, which has long been criticized for its slow pace of growth.
Liberty owner Joe Tsai, for example, received a $500,000 fine for chartering flights for the team in 2021—a violation of the CBA’s charter travel prohibition. Tsai knowingly broke the rules to provide a better experience for his players. Aces owner Mark Davis, who also owns the NFL’s Raiders, famously made former San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon the WNBA’s first million-dollar coach when he hired her to lead the team last year.
If the Aces are found guilty of violating the CBA’s rules, punishment from the league could implicate players as well as owners. But for some financiers, potential monetary penalties may be seen as a worthwhile cost of business. More severe consequences—nixed contracts, restrictions around roster spots or cap space—done in the name of competitive balance could stain the images of some of the league’s most marketable stars and draw public backlash.
(This story has been updated to include a statement from the Las Vegas Aces.)